A less-unwieldy possible alternative to subway-platform screen doors: track sensors

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Subway tracks. (Miss Kitty via Flickr)
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Ever since the sensational subway murders of Ki Suk Han and Sunando Sen, the media and politicians have been paying a lot of attention to deaths on the tracks, a relatively frequent occurrence that the M.T.A. too often considers "the cost of doing business," said Gene Russianoff, the head of NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign.

There's only one known way to prevent people from falling, jumping, or being pushed onto the tracks: platform screen doors, like the kind they have on the Air Train.

But those are both very expensive and, in light of the M.T.A.'s still-motley assortment of train cars, and the difficulties inherent to lining up platform screen doors to accommodate them, impracticable on most lines.

Now, some observers are wondering why the M.T.A. doesn't consider other solutions instead.

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"It's not a choice between doing a big capital project and doing nothing at all," said Michael Freedman-Schnapp, Councilman Brad Lander's policy director, a Riders Alliance advisory boardmember, and a witness to a subway death last year on the L line. "There are a range of solutions beyond platform doors that the M.T.A. could examine that are potentially simpler, cheaper and faster to implement."

One idea that Freedman-Schnapp thinks the M.T.A. should consider: sensors capable of detecting obstructions on subway tracks.

Russianoff calls the idea "an example of something that’s worth thinking about."

And Rich Barone, the director of the Regional Plan Association's transportation programs, says the technology does in fact exist and is in use in more advanced subway systems that rely on automated train operation and where there are no conductors looking out for obstructions on the tracks.

"Just like you would in your home, where you have sensors that detect when someone’s breaking into your house, you have an alarm system, it’s the same principle," said Barone. "It detects any object that’s within a certain range of the platform."

Certainly, such technology seems readily available.

A company called O'Conner Engineering advertises "a track obstruction sensor that detects cars, trucks, and people on the tracks, then flashes a strobe light to warn the train engineer of the obstruction."

And in December, the Times of India reported that, "Indian Railways is planning a project that will have sensors on tracks, which will warn trains of any obstruction on tracks in fog conditions."

"The technology involves installing a chip on tracks which would sense an approaching train at a distance of almost 900 meters to one kilometer and warn it of any obstruction, like a stationary train, on the same tracks, " Union railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal told the paper.

Asked for comment, M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg emailed, "We're working on strategies to reduce the number of injuries and deaths in the system."

UPDATE: Today, at a Transit Committee meeting, Tom Prendergast, the M.T.A.'s interim executive director, helped deliver a "Customer Contact with Train Incident Report," available here.

The report revealed that the transportation authority was continuing to explore the feasibility of installing platform screen doors and was looking into "intrusion detection technology," of the sort mentioned above.